DESCRIPTION: A description of the relations between grandfather and clock. The clock ran for the entire length of the old man's life, celebrating happy occasions and never complaining. "But it stopp'd -- short -- never to go again When the old man died."
AUTHOR: Henry Clay Work
EARLIEST DATE: 1876 (sheet music published by C. M. Cady of New York)
KEYWORDS: technology family nonballad
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (9 citations):
WorkSongs, pp. 177-180, Grandfather's Clock" (1 text, 1 tune, a copy of the original sheet music)
Stout 72, pp. 94-96, "Grandfather's Clock" (2 texts plus 2 fragments)
Neely, pp. 219-220, "Grandfather's Clock" (2 texts)
RJackson-19CPop, pp. 76-79, "Grandfather's Clock" (1 text, 1 tune)
Scott-EnglishSB, pp. 124-125, "My Grandfather's Clock" (1 fragment, 1 tune)
Emerson, pp. 67-68, "Grandfather's Clock" (1 text)
Silber-FSWB, p. 251, "Grandfather's Clock" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Martin Gardner, editor, _Famous Poems from Bygone Days_, Dover, 1995, pp. 168-169, "Grandfather's Clock" (1 text)
ST RJ19076 (Full)
Carolina Buddies, "Grandfather's Clock" (Decca 5142, 1935)
[?] Clark & [Walter] Scanlan, "Grandfather's Clock" (Edison 50979, 1922)
Frank Crumit, "Grandfather's Clock" (Victor 19945, 1926)
Edison Male Quartette, "Grandfather's Clock" (CYL: Edison 8967, 1905)
Chubby Parker, "Grandfather's Clock" (Supertone 9732, 1930)
Tom & Roy, "Grandfather's Clock, Part 1/Part 2" (Montgomery Ward M-4242, 1933)
cf. "My Grandfather's Cock" (tune, form)
cf. "His Grandfather's Hat" (tune, form)
NOTES: Soon after the Civil War, Henry Clay Work retired from songwriting (presumably because of the poor pay). In 1871, however, the Chicago fire burned down the offices of Root and Cady (the publishing firm), and Chauncy M. Cady asked his friend Work to write some songs to help him re-establish his business.
One of the songs Work turned in was "Grandfather's Clock," which had been gathering dust in his files for some years. The song sold some 800,000 copies, and earned Work about $4,000 in royalties (at that time, easily enough to retire on). He dedicated it "To my Sister Lizzie."
Folklore has it that, until this song was published, floor clocks were just "floor clocks" or "tall clocks." Since then, they have been known as "Grandfather clocks." This strikes me as more reasonable than many folk derivations, but I cannot verify this from any of my linguistic sources. Partridge, p. 116, says only that the term is from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.
Incidentally, there are famous instances of something rather like this actually happening, though I doubt it inspired Work's song. One story is of the famous Captain Cook and his final voyage of exploration. One of the reasons Cook was such a great explorer was that he was among the first officers to actually be able to tell longitude; in recent decades, enough astronomical data had been gathered to make it possible to navigate by the stars -- plus the chronometer (the first timepieces accurate enough to tell time while at sea) had been invented.
True chronometers were still very rare in Cook's time, since they had to be hand-made with incredible accuracy. John Harrison (1693-1776) had invented the device and built a handful; Larcum Kendall had made a handful in imitation of Harrison. Kendall's first machine, known as K-1, was used by Cook on his voyages. And, according to Sobel, p, 151, "Almost at the instant the captain died in 1779, according to an account kept at the time, K-1 also stopped ticking."
Opie/Tatem, p. 84, tells a tale of the clock at the House of Lords, which should have been wound up, stopping when George III died. They also mention a comment in Notes & Querries, 1864, in which nurses said it was a common occurrence for a clock to stop when someone died. Opie/Tatem have several more references to this type of thing, but all are more recent than the song. - RBW
Parodies of this piece have been common. Paul Stamler tells us of "His Grandfather's Hat," which likely will not make it into this collection: "'His Grandfather's Hat' is a parody of 'Grandfather's Clock,' referring to candidate Benjamin Harrison [elected in 1888, but defeated in 1892], grandson of President William Henry Harrison: 'His grandfather's hat is too big for his head/But Ben puts it on just the same.'" - PJS, RBW
Not all the parodies were political; Finson, pp. 132-133, reports, "Work's vision of the clock as a human servant generated parodies numbering 'upwards of twoscore,' according to Birdseye, who exaggerated little in this case. Alice Dale and George W. Morgan copied Work's song immediately in 'Grandmother's Clock' (1876) which also provides companionship (she talks to the machine throughout) and dies with its owner. B. M. McWilliams came very close to plagiarism in 'The Clock That Struck When Grandpa Died' (1880). And Work himself tried to capitalize on his success with 'Sequel to "Grandfather's Clock"' (1878), in which a relative returns to the old man's house and watches the useless machine chopped up for kindling."
Finson, p. 126, notes that there had been a number of earlier clock songs, often lamenting aging and the passage of time, which (like this song) imitated clock noises. So Work was imitating a popular genre -- but transformed and totally transcended it; those other songs all seem forgotten.
Finson, p. 215, says that the song was popularized by Sam Lucas: "Lucas (1848-1916), born of former slaves in Fayette County, Virginia, enjoyed one of the most distinguished careers on stage of any nineteenth-century entertainer, at first as a member of the Original Georgia Minstrels (an all-black troupe which also include [James] Bland) and later in reviews, plays, and vaudeville." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Opie/Tatem: Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, editors, A Dictionary of Superstitions, 1989 (I use the 1999 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Finson: Jon W. Finson, The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song, Oxford University Press, 1994
- Partridge: Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (combined fifth edition with dictionary and supplement), Macmillan, 1961
- Sobel: Dava Sobel, Longitude, 1995 (I use the 2007 Walker edition with a foreward by Neil Armstrong)
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